On The Marc in Walla Walla
BY ABRA BENNETT
PHOTOS BY ABRA BENNET AND SHEL HALL
Instead, Chef Antonio Campolio killed me: killed me with kindness, slayed me with deliciousness, and astounded me with his creativity. A stellar carb-free dinner is a real challenge, especially in a busy restaurant setting. Campolio laughs it off. “I always tell people that if I can get in there and make it happen, I will. It’s not really in my vocabulary to say we can’t, or we won’t.” And so he did.
The deconstructed BLT of pork belly, tomato preserve, and romaine emulsion, the Parmesan oil poached bass with fresh calamari “vermicelli” in prosciutto broth with baby spinach, the Muscovy duck breast with braised red cabbage, miso truffle essence and green tea cilantro foam, the dessert of savory blue cheese cake with a Marcona almond crust and a drizzle of 20-year old balsamic: Those were just some of the dishes that made this dinner one of the best in recent memory.
That sort of cuisine is a long way from Campolio’s beginnings as a cook, standing on a milk crate in the kitchen with his Dad, cooking an egg at the age of four. He “grew up in West Virginia, in a traditional Italian family on my father’s side. My mother comes from a traditional West Virginia coal mining family, so I had a very interesting kind of mesh between the two. One night we’d have gnocchi with tomato sauce and meatballs and the next night we’d have a pot of beans with cornbread. I learned to love both.” His family owned an Italian restaurant in Lewisburg, West Virginia for a number of years. “Our specialty was spaghetti and meatballs” Campolio remembers, with a dreamy look in his eyes, “the sauce that my father made took three days to do.”
Which probably explains why he now thinks nothing of canning hundreds of pounds of summer tomatoes for use in the kitchen during the winter. He came into the restaurant life the old-fashioned way, with his Mom’s home canning and his Dad’s three-day spaghetti sauce. All he needed to finish it off was a three and a half year apprenticeship at the famed Greenbrier Resort, where Certified Master Chef Peter Timmins started the then 18-year-old Campolio cutting vegetables in the pantry. “Don’t waste your time going to culinary school, you’re not ready, you’re just going to drink, you’re going to party. I’ll teach you everything you need to know” Timmins told him. Campolio is unstinting in his praise of the education he received at Greenbrier, where his Mom is still a lead baker. “Chef Timmins was right, he taught me everything I needed to know.”
After stints at the Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah, then a post as corporate task force chef with its parent company Kessler, then the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Campolio saw an ad for a chef in Walla Walla on monster.com. A few days after submitting his resume his life took a turn to the west. “I was sitting at home, outside, sipping on some whiskey, by a fire, when my phone rang. I answered it and it was Kyle Mussman saying `so why do you want to move to Walla Walla?` I was on a plane a week and a half later and fell in love with the hotel and the town.”
Walla Walla hasn’t always been known for cutting-edge food, but Campolio set out to change that. “Why follow the trend when you can just set it?” he asks. “We’re obviously doing some very trendy things here like using liquid nitrogen, a little molecular gastronomy, deconstruction and reconstruction, but another trend right now is that people want simplicity, they want to know what they’re eating, and because of the demographic here we’re careful. We can push the box this way or that way, but we don’t necessarily want to break through it. The chef’s table is our outlet, though, that’s where we push and nudge, helping to get people out of the box.”
His enthusiasm is boundless. “My major goal this year is showcasing what this valley has to offer, that, and getting my team to be of one like mind, have one shared goal. As a chef, there’s nothing better than seeing my team just gelling, kicking it out, seeing them take ownership, seeing the line just rocking and rolling, and doing a chef’s table at the same time, that’s what I love.” “Make sure you give my team credit” he begs. Sous chef Erik Johnson, pastry chef Mandi Konen, sommelier Dan McCaffrey, they’ve got his back, and he clearly loves them for it.
When I tell him for the third or fourth time how impressed I was with my special dinner, which he and his team pulled off while serving a busy Saturday night crowd from the regular menu, he smiles beatifically. “The bigger the challenge, the better the day. Tell me I can’t do something and just see what happens. The sky’s the limit, and I’m not going to put a cap on it. That’s just me being a chef and wanting to do the best I can.”
Abra Bennett lives and writes on Bainbridge Island, but often wishes she lived in Walla Walla. Her blog is frenchletters.wordpress.com